Ciarán Hinds in <i>Cat on a Hot Tin Roof</i>
Ciarán Hinds in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(© Joan Marcus)

"Don't explain it in that little section below the headline," Ciarán Hinds instructs while organizing tea for the two of us in his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. "It should just be, headline: ‘Mr. Hinds isn't funny,' period. Then your first sentence can be, ‘Hinds comes from a long line of dead stoics,'" he laughs. Of course it's not true. Anyone who helps an interviewer fabricate skewed headlines and dek copy has a sense of humor, and Hinds continues to show it off with wry one-liners and well-placed expletives. A Belfast native and veteran onscreen bad guy in flicks like Munich and TV shows like Game of Thrones, the leading man is currently dominating Broadway's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, playing infirmed Southern non-gentleman Big Daddy opposite Scarlett Johansson, Benjamin Walker, and Debra Monk. It's a role he nearly didn't take, convinced an American might be better suited to the Southern gothic poetics of Tennessee Williams. With the show's run coming to an end on March 31, we checked in with Hinds to talk about poetry, the possibility of doing drag, and his Broadway run with Scarlett and company.

You said opening night you felt there must be somebody more qualified to do American, poetic Tennessee Williams than you. Do you still feel similarly?

That's tough. I said yes to the job, I get paid to do the job. The job is to not shortchange anybody. But no [actor] ever really knows what [audiences get] from what they do. You try to work, with the director and your fellow actors, to get somewhere, but other people are the judge of whether you hit that note right. That's why sometimes you say yes to parts like this, even if you're unsure. You're unsure about much of what you do. Sometimes people will say to me ‘Why do you always play bad men? [points to face] It's the face!

Do you ever think, "I just want to do a ridiculous comedy"?

I'd love to get into some comedy, but people keep saying, ‘You're not funny!' And I say, ‘Well, fair enough.' I have done comedy on stage. I know what farce is, [as] a style. In good comedy, the structure comes from truth, and that weird eye that looks at the way life is. But when it goes into that grosser kind of vulgar comedy, I'm not interested — you know, a lot of mooning, a lot of d*** jokes. That's not for me.

Would you do drag?

Camp? Yeah. But that's a style. In those comedies, it's a combination of fast talk, gag talent, storytelling, and physical comedy. I like the style.

And poetry — there is a cadence to comedy.

Yes, a timing to where you place it. That's why Tennessee Williams was a great writer. Poetically, dramatically, it was fantastic stuff. And with the landscape, the losers in life populating it. His short stories have got rhythm, something musical about them.

You've said you were worried about the Cat Southern delta accent, but you've nailed it, cadence and all.

Ah! You grow up seeing American films, Westerns. I don't think I ever tried [the American accent] in Europe. I was asked to try a Texan once, here, but here's how ridiculous that is: I wrapped a job in West Texas — not an American accent. As I was wrapping, I got a call that an actor had dropped out of a role and they needed a Texan for two weeks, in Austin. I explained I'd never done Texan, let alone American… I was told to meet a man at the hotel to teach me the accent. I get there and [find] out the guy's name is Jerry and he's from Dublin. A dialect coach from Dublin, in Texas. It was insane, but he was brilliant.

So it takes a Dublin man to teach a Belfast man how to speak Texan?

I rest my case.

You've worked all over the globe. What does the rest of the world look at when they see American theater?

Family. It's so huge. The Irish writers — we think we have complete control over writing family. But you look around, you have Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Death of a Salesman. In the context of the politics of a time, at the heart of it all is family. Sam Shepard, even though he was writing about drifters in True West, [he] was writing about brothers. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is fifty years removed from the current. But when people get to see it, they see this is a family, and see what it means to both love and hate people you live with.

The overlap between Southern and Irish writers — the melancholy. It is different from "wild west guys." Writers do more of the Mamet thing.

Yes, that rattle-gun technique, with all the ticks and the idiosyncrasies. That [kind of writing] may have its own poetry, but it doesn't touch my core where the rhythm of other languages, of Williams or Shepard does. There's more landscaping to the poetics, whereas the city landscape is just a hard, old f***ing rattle of steal against barbed wire. That relentless squawk of modern urban life, it's less appealing. To me.

Did the idea of the cadence of the South being closer to Irish writing make Williams less intimidating to approach?

Maybe. You read [Cat]'s script going, ‘Why does this man say something four times when he can say it once?' Then you realize those are speech patterns. You can't understand it without asking, why would you say that again and again, but everything changes in those repeated lines because the thought is solidifying. When I play [that structure] with [onstage son Benjamin Walker], we go to war in a loving way, and it can come out different every night. If the structure is solid, the poetry can bend and be very normal.

Ciarán Hinds
Ciarán Hinds
(© David Gordon)

But you have to be talented to pull that off — you need people who hear it, then speak it honestly.

Listening is one of the most difficult things you have to do. To really listen and not worry about the huge amount you've got to speak in thirty seconds is kind of scary. Sometimes you can't do it and go somewhere else, and suddenly think, ‘Well how did we get here?' The audience never sees the exact same thing twice. But we know that the possibility of listening purely is there. That's the way we try to work.

You've had a substantial career in Hollywood. What is it like watching young performers like Scarlett, already established as a star, and Ben, who's on the rise, navigate these roles and media attention?

At the end of it, it's not my business. But at the same time, as a human being and a coworker, to watch two people create — especially the first act, which I don't have any part of and can sit and watch — is the best. To watch how they connected, how they disconnected in the story, how much Scarlett has to drive that whole piece while Ben has to be slightly out of it. It was all very beautiful. I had a great time watching the two of them. I am very moved by Scarlett's wonderful, intuitive work, and Ben's humor and dedication.

So you don't want to play too many more "baddies." You don't want to do crass comedy. What do you want to do next?

I'm a man of a certain age. We always wanted to be cowboys when we were kids, but that came back five years ago and now we're back in sci-fi territory. I've done the fantasy thing. I wish I could say, ‘More Shakespeare, darling!' But no. I've never had a desire to play any particular role. For me, it's stories or scripts I like. Yeah, more comedy would be alright. But I'm just not funny.